Catharsis or neurosis?

Laws on the past are born in Ukraine

David Svoboda

Regulating the interpretation of history by law will inevitably lead to problems. It is like trying to stuff the heavens above into a laundry basket. Ukrainian state-forming historiography always lacked the assertive scope characteristic for the similar Polish or Hungarian schools or for the imperial complexes which serve Russocentric views. The Ukrainian parliament was certainly driven by an effort to attain this scope when it adopted a package of laws which sweepingly tackle history. This happened without any discussion on 9 April 2015, symbolically on Holy Thursday of the Orthodox Easter. The matter being too dense, let us limit this treatise to several noteworthy problems.   

Act No. 2558 bans Nazi and Communist symbols and lists their attributes in detail. It is to be illegal among other things to display state symbols of the former people’s democracies, among others also of the ČSSR. Memorials of Soviet provenience commemorating the expulsion of German occupiers from Ukraine are exempt. Several tens of members of Western academia pointed out in a critical letter that the Soviet epoch is being subjected to a generalised condemnation without taking into account the periods which were favourable for Ukraininan national development. They mean the liberal 1920s and also Gorbachev’s perestroyka. This point of view, resounding with our already intimately well-known anti-anti-Communism, however omits the question whether Ukrainian society would not have developed more successfully in a free state, the establishment of which was thwarted by the Red army offensive.   

The ban on promotion of Nazism then led historians Per Anders Rudling and Christopher Gilley to maliciously point out the trouble which will arise for Ukrainians with the cult of the 14th SS grenadier division Galicia, composed of volunteers in German service. This is obvious: while the emblems of the division do not contain any Nazi symbols, Ukrainian historiography childishly holds back the SS attribute in its name. The memory of the German occupation is not unambiguous in Ukraine either – a part of the Ukrainian population which gave rise to the division from its midst spent it under incomparably milder conditions than Ukrainians belonging to the Reichskommissariat under the administration of Erich Koch. The Galicia division was not born out of the desire to help the Nazi worldview, but to stand and face the approaching Red army which was bringing the Stalinist order back to the West.  

It seems nevertheless that the most conspicuous problem of this legislative initiative is the conjoining of purely declaratory elements with elements of a legal norm. This is for instance the case of Act No. 2538-1, a sort of lex Beneš paying attention also the doubters about the fighters for Ukraine’s independence who are listed in detail. Article 6 of the Act threatens punishment to citizens of Ukraine, foreigners or homeless people alike who publicly display a lack of respect to the listed liberation entities. A lack of respect can thus include a critical view of the activity of the Organisation of Ukrainian nationalists (OUN), the Ukrainian insurgent army (UPA), the forces of Taras Borovets (irregular Ukrainian militia “Polovetska sich” and its successor, the Ukrainian national revolutionary army) etc.

The first objection is obvious: this is a non-democratic measure, historical science cannot exist without criticism. However, the Act also creates a remarkable contradiction. The given examples include organisations which were in bitter feud with one another, so that it is difficult to express respect for Taras Borovets without touching the honour of the Banderovets – and vice versa. The OUN is listed as a unified entity, with the authors omitting the rift between the so-called Banderovets and Melnykovets and their fratricidal conflicts. A part of the Ukrainian nationalists also participated in the extermination of Jews during the war. Although this question is more complicated than the way it is presented by the current-day Ukrainophobic rhetoric, it is not possible to condemn Nazism by law and simultaneously avoid the problematic periods of the history of Ukrainian resistance which are associated with Hitler’s crimes.

This Act is however also interesting for what it does not contain, most likely in an attempt to escape probable criticism. The aforementioned Galicia division or the Ukrainian legion of colonel Roman Sushko are missing from the list of fighters for free Ukraine – probably due to their subservient position toward the German ally. This honour was also denied to the government of Yaroslav Stecko declared on 30 June 1941 in the days of the successful German advance into the interior of the USSR. The proclamations of the government established without prior negotiation with Hitler were overflowing with respect to the Great German empire and its liberation mission in the East. Here, paradoxically, the authors depart from nationalist provinciality in a likely attempt to accommodate to Western taste. Stecko and Co. wanted a free Ukraine too, but by way of close cooperation with the Third Reich. Not to mention that these were certainly ethically questionable notions conditioned by the ideology of the OUN. Many a country in the 20th century was established by the merit of winners and was also sustained by them. This cannot have escaped the initiators of the legal text who included governor Skoropadsky on the roll of honour, a vasall of the Central powers in 1918. Thus the Act tries to plot the crooked history in straight lines, landing in a vicious circle.  

Few European states have avoided the temptation to determine from above what is to be thought about the past. In a number of European countries Holocaust denial or relativisation is prosecuted. Lex Masaryk or lex Beneš continue telling us today what we are to think about both presidents. In the enumeration of the Czechoslovak resistances, the Habsburg monarchy is lined up alongside with the most hideous dictatorships. The urge of foreign statesmen to visit Moscow on 9 May shows that a political codification of history can bizarrely lead to the legitimisation of Russian imperialism. Interestingly, this is exactly what escapes the attention of the Western critics of the Ukrainian initiative. However, the package of Ukrainian laws is so monumental that it iminently calls for criticism. It is being obviously created as a part of the mobilisation equipment of society at a time when the country is at war with the aggressor. Its role is to defend the insulted and threatened statehood. But these are no laws for the good times, they are neurotic laws. They will not replace historical literacy and courage to lead a well-founded discussion which the Ukrainians – and were it only them – desperately lack. Let us hope therefore that the neurosis does not bring about the victory of the paraphrase Durnyi lex, sed lex. Durnyi means stupid in Ukrainian.           

Mgr. David Svoboda, MA, Ph.D. (1977) Czech historian and writer. His fields of interest include the modern history and the present of Ukraine and the history of the Soviet Union. He works at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes.